PM/GC Quilts Skill Builder Series: Part 4 – Quarter Inch Seams

Once again, Jeanne and I are discussing different aspects of quilting. She will address preparation of fabric before sewing, including washing vs. not washing, pressing, finding the straight of grain, and the importance of straight of grain and bias.  Meanwhile, I’ll focus on achieving consistent seams.

Quarter inch seams can be one of the most frustrating parts of quilting. Here’s a little secret, though – a quarter inch doesn’t always matter. If you are the only person working on the project, (edited to add: AND YOU’RE USING ONLY ONE SHAPE IN THE BLOCK,) it doesn’t matter if your seams are exactly 1/4″, as long as they are consistent. A block sewn with consistent seams will finish with accurate seam intersections and points. It may be slightly smaller or slightly larger than the quoted block size, but it will still be accurate. If you assemble the blocks into a top with consistent seams, even using pieced borders, everything will align properly.

(Whoops! As Lisa of Misadventures in Quilting noted, this is not entirely true! While it is true that consistent seams are more important than 1/4″ seams in some blocks, more complex blocks do depend on a 1/4″ seam allowance for all of the parts to go together correctly. So you can make a quilt of identical components (for example, all squares, or all half square triangles, etc.) and the measurement is not as critical as the consistency, but if you combine those components in a single block or quilt, the 1/4″ seam is essential. Thanks, Lisa!)

So why are we so hung up on the perfect quarter inch seam? Well, because we often don’t work on projects alone. Bee blocks, group  quilts, round robins and signature quilts – when more than one person works on a project, their seams must also be consistent between each other. If one person is consistently sewing their seams 1/16″ larger than the other(s), their blocks will not fit into the rest of the quilt. There are ways of getting around this problem with sashing, frames and setting options, but that’s something we’ll talk about later in the series.

Also, although consistency is more important than 1/4″, you still need to learn how to be consistent. And if you’re working on that, well, you might as well work on getting your seams to be consistently 1/4″. That way, when you work from patterns your measurements will match those in the pattern.

So how do you achieve a perfect 1/4″ seam?


We sometimes overlook the importance of accurate cutting as it impacts our seams. When you think about it, though, if your pieces are cut slightly smaller than they should be, of course you’re going to end up with a smaller block. Look at the markings on your ruler. Some rulers have wider markings than others. Here you can see the blue fabric is measured to the outside of the 2 1/2″ mark, while the pink fabric is measured to the inside of the 2 1/2″ mark. (Click on the photo to see it larger.)

When you cut, aim for the outside of the mark (like the blue fabric) rather than the inside.


After sewing the seam, you fold the fabric back and press. That fold can have a minuscule affect on the size of the finished piece, but when you add hundreds of seams together, all of those “minuscules” add up. As you fold the fabric back, you aren’t folding directly on the seam, but immediately next to it. That one or two thread difference is the reason experienced quilters talk about a “scant quarter inch seam.” So what do we mean by “scant”? The best definition is “less than the full amount, often deliberately so” or, “just barely.” Instead of trying to sew exactly at 1/4″, aim for one or two threads less than 1/4″.

In this photo, the blue fabric is lined up just inside the 1/4″ mark on my seam guide. You can also see that it’s just inside the edge of my quarter inch foot.

In the second photo, the pink fabric is lined up directly on the 1/4″ mark on the seam guide, and it is at the outside edge of the quarter inch foot.

The first example, with the blue fabric, will result in a more accurate seam once the pieces are pressed.


Thread thickness can also play a part in how much space is taken up when you fold the fabric back. Here are two threads by Aurifil.

The black thread is 50 weight and the green is 40 weight. As I mentioned in the Tools post, the lower the number, the thicker the thread. I prefer to piece with 50 weight thread because it is thinner. It is very difficult to see the difference between the two – it’s easier to tell which is thicker when you touch them. I used the black thread with the blue test pieces, and the green thread with the pink test pieces.

Testing Your Seams
How do you know if your seams are accurate? Using the principles above, cut several pieces of fabric 2 1/2″ x 1 1/2″.

Sew them together along the long edges. Press them and measure the finished piece. It should be exactly 2 1/2″ square.

In the photos you can see that the blue fabric measures exactly 2 1/2″ square. It was cut to the outside of the ruler marking, sewn with a scant 1/4″ seam, and used the thinner thread. The pink fabric was cut to the inside of the marking, sewn at exactly 1/4″ and used the thicker thread. As you can see, the pink square is almost 1/8″ less than 2 1/2″ wide.

Seam Guides

There are a number of tools available to help you maintain accurate seams. Many sewing machines come with a quarter inch foot, and if yours doesn’t have one you may be able to buy one. Some have a little piece of metal extending down from the right side of the foot that serves as a stopper for the fabric. I haven’t had much luck with those, but you might find that kind helpful.

My paper seam guide has worked well for me for several years, although it’s getting rather ratty looking. It is no longer available as a free PDF, but you can purchase a sturdier adhesive version from the creator at Reanna Lily Designs. I especially like this layout, but there are other seam guides available as well. The Angler 2 by Pam Bono Designs is focused more on helping you sew 45 degree angles (like you need for half square triangles and other pieces with that angle), but it also has a quarter inch seam line. Another product is the Fast2Sew Ultimate Seam Guide from C&T Publishing. This has both straight lines in 1/4″ increments as well as angled lines.

With a little ingenuity, you can create your own seam guides. Start with a piece of 1/4″ graph paper or a 1/4″ ruled index card. Trim on one line, being careful to cut EXACTLY at the line to maintain accuracy. I like index cards because they’re not as floppy as paper, but it’s helpful to have a perpendicular line to make sure your guide is straight. Use a ruler to draw a line that forms a perfect T to the preprinted lines.

Place the card or graph paper in your sewing machine, putting your needle through the preprinted line…

…and using the line you drew to make sure the card is straight. I lined mine up with the seam on my machine where the tray flips open. Be sure to line it up on both sides of the card to keep it straight.

There are several ways you can create a guide from this point. The easiest is to just draw a pencil line on the bed of your machine. It washes off easily if you want. I used the card to extend the lines past my seam guide onto the tape and the bed of the machine. (The card looks a little crooked – it slipped when I picked up the camera after I drew the lines.)

But see above there – I also created a seam guide with a little pack of sticky notes. Just lift off a small stack and press it to the bed of your machine against the edge of the card. By using a stack instead of a single note, you have a built up edge to guide your fabric.

Sticky notes are not permanent, which can be good, but they can also be easy to move around or knock off. Another option is blue masking tape, found at the hardware store. Blue tape is made especially to remove easily without leaving a residue. You can place just a single layer as a semi-permanent guide…

…or you can cut through several layers on the roll and peel it off as a thicker piece. Please be very careful when you cut this – it’s easy to injure yourself! Like the sticky notes, it creates an edge to hold your fabric in alignment.

Other Tips

Have you ever noticed that your seams weave back and forth instead of going straight? Part of the problem may be where you’re looking as you sew. Instead of watching the fabric under the needle, watch the edge of the fabric against your foot or your seam guide. By the time it reaches your needle, it’s too late to correct the wobble.

Your sewing machine may allow you to adjust your needle position. If you notice that your seams are always a tiny bit too big or a tiny bit too small (one or the other, not jumping back and forth between the two), try moving your needle just a tick.

My best tip for creating accurate blocks it to sew first, then cut. As demonstrated in the half square triangle posts, cutting larger pieces, sewing, and then trimming to size makes accuracy much easier to attain. It might seem like a little extra work, but if you figure how much time (and frustration) you waste redoing blocks that didn’t turn out quite right, it’s a wash. As you become more familiar with how a block breaks down, you’ll be able to tell when you can cut bigger and then trim, and when you need to make it accurate the first time through.

Do you have any other tricks for accurate seams?


PM/GC Quilts Skill Builder Series button

Ack! I knew I forgot something! Jeanne created a button for our Skill Builder Series, and I forgot to post it! Both Jeanne and I are compiling a list with links to the posts on a single page on each of our blogs. If you’d like, you’re welcome to use this button on your blog. This one will direct you to my page, and if you go to Jeanne’s blog you can copy the HTML for the button that will take you to her page.

PM/GC Quilts Skill Builder Series
<div align="center"><a href="" title="PM/GC Quilts Skill Builder Series" target="_blank"><img src="" alt="PM/GC Quilts Skill Builder Series" style="border:none;" /></a></div>

PM/GC Quilts Skill Builder Series: Seam Ripping

A couple of people commented on the last Skill Building post about the “correct” way to rip seams, so here’s a quick little extra skill builder. I don’t think there’s only one correct way, so I’m showing several options. Keep in mind that I’m left handed, so the pictures may look backward to you.

My mom taught me to rip seams by separating the two layers of fabric and cutting the thread between them, then pulling the two pieces apart until they wouldn’t go any further, cutting again, pulling, etc. This would probably work well with the curved blade seam ripper as well, although I’d be concerned about maintaining control of it. I imagine you could do the same thing very easily with scissors.

When I took a quilting class, the instructor told us to use the seam ripper to cut every third stitch on one side of the fabric, then pull the pieces apart. This works well with traditional seam rippers as well as the curved blade type. You can also use a very sharply pointed pair of scissors to snip the stitches.

You can also flip it over to the back and pull the long thread.

This leaves a lot of little pieces of thread that I find really annoying to deal with. The way I usually rip seams takes a little longer, but is easier to clean up because the thread pieces are larger. I pick out the seams on one side, sliding the dull edge of the seam ripper into the stitch and pushing it away from me. I pick six or seven stitches so I have a tail that I can grasp, then cut the seam several stitches back. I pull on the tail, sliding the thread out, and repeat.

Sometimes it’s easier for me to start in the middle and work backward.

So how do you rip your seams?

PM/GC Quilts Skill Builder Series: Part 3 – Basic Tools

Jeanne and I are taking divergent paths for our posts this time. She’s expanding the Fabric post and talking more about Neutrals. Be sure to check it out!

Among the responses I received to the Skill Builder Series was a question from Shannon, a woman from Malawi, who asked what I considered the bare necessities for quilting tools. I sent an email to her that started with “here’s the short version” and ended with “I’ll probably end up using the email verbatim for the post!” As you’ve noticed, I tend to do a complete brain dump when I write, and emails are no exception. Keep in mind that any brand names I mention are not requirements, simply the brands I have access to and have purchased. For the most part, the brand is unimportant – the features are what matter. Thread is one of the few items that brand matters to me, but the two I mention are just my preference.

After reading my list, are there any other tools you consider “requirements” for quilting? Do you have a favorite brand in any of your tools? I am a machine quilter and so I know my list is skewed away from hand piecing and quilting – is there anything you’d like to add for the hand quilters? Finally, do you have any favorite tools that, while not exactly essential, are the next step beyond?

Rotary Cutter: Choose one with a good safety feature – you do NOT want to cut yourself with one of these, they’re razor sharp. Make sure you can lock the blade closed. I love my Ergo 2000, but it uses specific blades that may be more difficult for you to get. Olfa makes good ones, as does Fiskars. If you’re the only person using it, I recommend the Olfa Deluxe Ergonomic Rotary Cutter. If you’re sharing it and left/right handedness is an issue, get a straight handled one instead. As for size, if you can only get one, go with a 45mm. It’s big enough to cut through eight layers of fabric, and small enough to handle a wide curve. Don’t forget to buy replacement blades – you need to change them fairly often (and every time you do you’ll wonder why you didn’t replace the blade sooner). I’ve heard that you can actually use much cheaper carpet cutter blades, found at hardware stores.

Self-healing mat: Get as big a mat as you can justify, and get a tiny one to put next to your sewing machine for trimming. I’d recommend one at least 18″ x 24″, or 24″ x 36″ if you can manage it. You need to be able to cut fabric from selvage to selvage, and it’s best if you can do it without folding it again. That’s about 22″. I also have a 6″ x 8″ mat for trimming block components (like half square triangles). The rotating ones are nifty, but unnecessary, and far too expensive. Again, Olfa is a good brand, but any mat of the same material is pretty much the same. Just a tip – I don’t like to use the gridded side of the mat – I use the plain side, and rely on my ruler for measuring.

Acrylic rulers: You’ll need a couple of these. One should be long enough to cut selvage to selvage, so get a 24″ ruler. You can choose either a 6″ wide or 6 1/2″ wide. Personally, for the really long ruler I’d just as soon go with the 6″, but it’s really up to you. Make sure the ruler has a 45 degree line on it (it will probably have 30 and 60 degree lines, too) – you may not use it right away, but it could come in handy later. You should also get a 12 1/2″ square ruler. 12″ is a common finished block size, and a 12 1/2″ ruler will help you square up your blocks. I also recommend a 6 1/2″ square ruler for working with the smaller components of your blocks. The 12 1/2″ can be unwieldy. That’s really all you need, but if you want one more, look at a 2″ x 18″ or 3″ x 18″ ruler. I find that I use mine a lot.

There are a lot of features to consider – do you want non-skid backing so they don’t slide on your fabric? Do you want frosted rulers so the markings are easier to see on light and dark fabric? Maybe the rulers with yellow marks on one side and black on the other make more sense to you.

Some rulers use solid lines and others use dashed lines. I like the dashed lines so you can see the edge of the fabric when you’re measuring it. Make sure the 1/8″ marks are easy to see. When I need to measure 1/8″, I use the ruler with the full grid rather than trying to line up the 1/8″ marks every inch. Brands aren’t so important – handle some rulers and try measuring with them. Buy what feels best for you. Obviously, I have an assortment of brands, but I have heard that it’s best to use all the same brand so the measurements are consistent. Out of curiosity, I stacked three different brands of rulers on top of my marked cutting mat and they were exactly the same, so I’m not going to worry about it too much.

Scissors: Get a good pair of small scissors to keep at your sewing machine for snipping thread. I love my Fiskars Comfort Grip Micro Tip scissors – they have a large handle and small blade. I also have a Fiskars Soft Touch Micro Tip – similar principle with the small blade, but this one has a spring that makes it easier to open the scissors. For small nipping, this isn’t a big deal, but I also recommend a large pair of scissors that are used only on fabric. For the larger scissors, the spring is wonderful (check out the Fiskars 8″ Soft Touch). If you have to do a lot of cutting, your hands will be much less sore. I don’t use the larger scissors as much – in fact, I tend to use them only when I’m doing paper piecing. Otherwise most of my fabric cutting is done with the rotary cutter.

Seam Ripper: Much as I hate to say it, your seam ripper is your friend. I prefer one with a larger handle and the classic U shape, but there are some curved blade ones that look interesting.

Pins: Believe it or not, pins matter. If you’re going to use pins (and I often don’t), you want ones that are suitable for the way you’re using them. For pinning blocks and block components together, look at long, thin pins with flat heads. For applique, check out shorter pins with glass heads that are heat resistant.

Needles: There are many ways to attach the binding to a quilt, but one of the more popular involves hand sewing on one side. Ten different people will give you ten different opinions on the best needles to use – here’s mine. Look at straw needles. They’re long and thin, making them easier to handle. The smaller the number, the larger the needle. Straw needles are good for hand applique, if that interests you. I’ve also used sharps for hand sewing the binding, and they work well. For hand quilting, “betweens” are recommended because they are stronger and less flexible. It allows you to gather several stitches on your needle before pulling the thread through. I haven’t hand quilted, and that’s about the extent of my knowledge!

Thread: For piecing, traditional wisdom says that 100% cotton is best because it is the same as the fabric you’re sewing together, and they will wear consistently. Some people say polyester thread is fine for piecing, but I stick with the cotton myself. I do use poly for quilting, however. When choosing your piecing thread, be aware of the size of the thread. There are two numbers in the thread measurement. The first is the thickness and the second is the number of strands. So 50/2 thread has two strands, while 40/3 thread has three strands. Like needles, the smaller the number, the larger the thread. I recommend using 50/2 or finer thread for piecing because it helps with the 1/4″ seam allowance. Skinnier thread means less bulk to fold the fabric over. I admit, I love my Aurifil thread, but it isn’t cheap. I recently tried the thread from Connecting Threads (online), and I’ve had great results.

Iron: You need a good, hot iron that doesn’t shut off too quickly. It’s a safety feature, but I hate when my iron shuts off when I’m quilting.

Graph paper and colored pencils: Designing your own quilts is not that scary once you learn the basics. An assortment of colored pencils or markers and some graph paper are a great way to get started. You can recreate blocks you’ve seen, create your own, or design an entire quilt. You don’t have to buy graph paper – you can download free PDFs and print your own. Incompetech has a huge variety of graph papers, including squares, hexagons, triangles, rectangles – even circles.

Fabric Marking Pencil: Be sure to find something with white lead for marking on dark fabric. (I just use a cheap mechanical pencil with regular lead for lighter fabrics.) There are a lot of marking tools available, but look for one that gives a sharp line, is visible on dark fabric, and erases easily. I prefer mechanical pencils because they provide a sharp line every time. I use Sewline with ceramic lead, but I see that Dritz has a mechanical pencil with ceramic lead, also.

Blue painter’s tape: This stuff is so handy! You can cut a chunk out of the roll and stick it to the bed of your machine to give you a 1/4″ guide, you can use it to mark quilting lines, you can stick blocks to the wall to play with layout… It doesn’t leave a residue and it’s easy to remove. Find it at the hardware store.

Walking foot for your sewing machine: Straight line quilting is very popular and looks great on most quilts. A walking foot helps move the fabric through your machine more evenly, moving both the top layer of fabric at the same time the feed dogs are moving the bottom layer.

Darning (Open toed) foot for your sewing machine: If you decide to free motion quilt, an open toed foot will make it easier to see what you’re doing.

Quilt Basting Pins: These are bent safety pins that you use to fasten the layers together before quilting. They are NOT a necessity, just one of the more popular methods for basting a quilt. There’s an inexpensive tool you can use to help open and close the pins, too.

Binding Clips: Fifteen years ago, these were just plain old snap clips for hair, and you can still find them at beauty supply stores in bulk for a lot less than you’ll pay in the notions section of a craft store. They’re great for holding the binding in place as you’re hand sewing. I only use five or six when I’m binding my quilt, moving them ahead as I sew, but some people like to clip an entire side or even the whole quilt.

I’m probably missing some stuff, but I think that covers the basics. Of course there are a lot of fun toys out there, including specialty rulers for every shape and technique, different size rotary cutters, templates for cutting and for quilting, tools to help you quilt the layers… it goes on and on!

Survey comments, part 1

Question two of the survey was “what techniques do you use?” and there were a lot that I forgot to include in the check boxes, including:
crazy quilting
embellishment for art quilts (beads, embroidery thread, wire, yarn, sheer fabrics for layering)
machine reverse applique
settings that are not assembled in rows of same sized blocks
Hawaiian applique
invisible machine applique
Celtic applique
Cathedral windows
Micro blocks – finished block size of 3″ or less
digital collages printed onto fabric
t-shirt quilts
dresden plate

There were also a number of interesting comments:

“WTF is trapunto and bargello? I must investigate!”

“Whatever it takes to get the shapes I want together!”

“I’m up to trying whatever a pattern requires! I will make a practice run to see if I really want to do a whole quilt with the technique. It is a great learning experience.”

“Being new, I try to incorporate at least one new skill into every quilt I make. Sometimes I make a top just for fun, but I am attempting to increase the difficulty level as I go along.”

“I try to learn a new technique with every quilt and have started designing my own quilts. Fly Swallows Was the most difficult with lots of Y seams and 48 pieces. And I have designed my own paper pieced blocke a butterfly and a crow. And I am learning template pieceing a la Ruth McDowell.”

“Everything but applique, I’m just too impatient to be that fussy!”

“I’ve only made 5 quilts (completed) and have another 1 in the works and more designs. I want to try as many techniques as I can, because I like the look of so many and would love to achieve it myself. I don’t particularly like wonky blocks so won’t try them, but have tried improvising in that I didn’t plan the quilt before I started. I just started sewing. So far have pieced large squares and small pinwheels for this one.”

Finally, you must check out the links from this comment:

“I’m working on translating mathematical tilings, like Penrose tilings, into quilts. They have symmetries of unusual numbers, such as 5 and 7, so they don’t correspond at all to standard quilt patterns. See and for examples.”

Survey numbers

Nearly 700 people responded to my survey over the past few weeks. Although it’s safe to assume that the results are skewed toward people who were not offended by my earlier posts, the results are full of all sorts of interesting bits. Except for the first question, all responses are sorted in descending order. The first question is also the only question that allowed just one box to be checked. I’ll be posting some of the “Other” comments I received for each of the  questions over the next day or two.

1. What skill level do you consider yourself?
Answer Options Percent Count
I’d like to learn to quilt someday 0.3% 2
Newbie Quilter 4.3% 30
Adventurous Beginning Quilter 22.5% 155
Intermediate Quilter 28.0% 193
Adventurous Intermediate Quilter 26.7% 184
Skilled Quilter 19.6% 135
Master Quilter 1.4% 10
answered question 690 690
skipped question 2 2
2. What techniques do you use?
Answer Options Percent Count
Half Square Triangles 88.9% 614
Chain Piecing 86.1% 595
Strip Piecing 83.2% 575
Squares and Rectangles measuring 2″ or smaller 70.3% 486
Flying Geese 67.7% 468
Quarter Square Triangles 62.7% 433
Foundation (Paper) Piecing 61.1% 422
Fusible Machine Applique 59.0% 408
Squares and Rectangles only, measuring 2 1/2″ or larger 55.3% 382
Hand Applique 49.3% 341
Partial Seams/Y Seams/Set In Seams 46.5% 321
Curves 46.0% 318
Other Size Triangles (60 degree, 30 degree, etc.) 45.9% 317
Templates 45.0% 311
Raw Edge Machine Applique 44.1% 305
Embroidery 43.4% 300
Improvisational/Wonky/Free Pieced 43.1% 298
One Patch – NOT Square or Rectangle (Hexagons, Tumblers, Pyramids, Apple Core) 33.3% 230
Hand Piecing 31.3% 216
Stack & Whack (Kaleidoscope) 26.8% 185
Bargello 13.7% 95
Pre-cut shapes (AcuQuilt Go Cutter or purchased shapes) 13.6% 94
Other (please specify) 10.3% 71
Trapunto 8.2% 57
answered question 691 691
skipped question 1 1
3. What size quilts do you make?
Answer Options Percent Count
Lap Quilts 84.9% 587
Baby Quilts 76.3% 527
Full/Queen Bed Quilts 68.6% 474
Twin Bed Quilts 64.0% 442
Small Quilts (under 36″) 52.0% 359
King Bed Quilts 27.9% 193
Mini Quilts (under 18″) 27.8% 192
Mug Rugs 21.9% 151
Other (please specify) 8.4% 58
answered question 691 691
skipped question 1 1
4. How do you create your quilts?
Answer Options Percent Count
Use patterns sometimes 70.2% 486
Use quilt pictures as a guide, but figure out the piecing on my own 66.0% 457
Create my own quilt patterns with traditional blocks on paper 37.4% 259
Create quilt designs entirely on my own on paper 34.7% 240
Follow detailed patterns only 16.0% 111
Create my own quilt patterns with traditional blocks using quilt design software 16.0% 111
Other (please specify) 12.9% 89
Create quilt designs entirely on my own using quilt design software 10.5% 73
answered question 692 692
skipped question 0 0
5. What fabric styles do you use?
Answer Options Percent Count
Solids and Near Solids (Kona, Moda Bella, Shot Cotton, Linen, etc.) 70.5% 488
Brights 61.8% 428
Tone on Tone 60.3% 417
Neutrals 60.0% 415
Small Scale Modern Prints 59.2% 410
Batiks 56.6% 392
Modern Florals 49.7% 344
Jewel Tones 48.8% 338
Holiday/Seasonal 48.1% 333
Large Scale Modern Prints 46.4% 321
Children’s 44.8% 310
Geometrics 44.1% 305
Celebrity Designers 42.1% 291
Modern Retro 41.5% 287
Novelty 40.9% 283
Current Traditional (French General, etc.) 39.3% 272
30’s Repros 38.3% 265
Romantic Florals 37.0% 256
Civil War Reproduction 33.1% 229
Pastels 31.1% 215
Traditional (Kansas Troubles, etc.) 30.1% 208
Words, letters and numbers 28.2% 195
Oriental 24.1% 167
Homespun 23.0% 159
Other Weight/Texture Fabrics (Minkee, Kona Crush, Corduroy, Voile, Sateen) 19.9% 138
Other (please specify) 13.7% 95
answered question 692 692
skipped question 0 0
6. In what format you do buy your fabric?
Answer Options Percent Count
Yardage, coordinating fabrics that I like regardless of the fabric lines 83.4% 574
Fat Quarters, coordinating fabrics that I like regardless of the fabric lines 64.2% 442
Pre-cut fabric bundles from a single line (Fat Quarter, Strips, 10″ squares, 5″ squares) 51.3% 353
Yardage, choosing fabrics mostly from a single line but adding some others (other than solids) 30.7% 211
Fat Quarters, choosing fabrics mostly from a single line but adding some others (other than solids) 23.8% 164
Fat Quarters, choosing coordinating fabrics from a single line (plus solids) 21.8% 150
Yardge, choosing coordinating fabrics from a single line (plus solids) 21.2% 146
Yardage bundles encompassing all or part of a fabric line (Half Yard or Larger) 15.3% 105
Other (please specify) 11.5% 79
answered question 688 688
skipped question 4 4
7. How do you finish your quilts?
Answer Options Percent Count
Straight line quilting on my domestic sewing machine 65.9% 455
Free motion quilting on my domestic sewing machine 57.8% 399
Hand quilting 32.9% 227
Pay to have them professionally quilted 32.0% 221
Free motion quilting on my quilting frame – longarm or short arm 14.3% 99
I don’t – I have a dozen quilt tops waiting to be finished 10.1% 70
Tied 9.7% 67
Other (please specify) 8.6% 59
Pantographs or stencils on my quilting frame 8.3% 57
answered question 690 690
skipped question 2 2
8. What do you struggle with in quilting?
Answer Options Percent Count
Finding time because of family or work commitments 59.0% 404
Getting distracted by new ideas 56.4% 386
Getting sidetracked by the computer (blogs, Flickr, EQ7) 45.5% 312
Fabric and color selection 21.0% 144
Accuracy – quarter inch seams 18.0% 123
Other (please specify) 15.2% 104
Accuracy – cutting fabric 14.3% 98
Losing interest in a project halfway through (because you no longer like it) 13.3% 91
Learning new techniques 10.5% 72
answered question 685 685
skipped question 7 7
9. How do you document your inspirations and design ideas?
Answer Options Percent Count
I keep an inspiration notebook where I jot down ideas and sketches 46.3% 316
I have an inspiration wall, board or folder where I put photos, fabric swatches, etc. 32.9% 225
I draw designs on graph paper 31.5% 215
I use Flickr (or other photo sharing site) Favorites and Galleries 26.9% 184
I don’t keep track of ideas! I forget more ideas than I make. 24.5% 167
Other (please specify) 18.4% 126
I use EQ6/EQ7/other quilt design software 10.7% 73
answered question 683 683
skipped question 9 9
10. How do you document your quilts?
Answer Options Percent Count
I attach a label with the basic information – my name, date, location, and who it’s for. 50.7% 350
I keep a photo album of quilts I’ve made. 50.6% 349
I post final photos and a brief description on my blog or in my Flickr (or other photo sharing site) photostream 41.3% 285
I write about the process on my blog, including progress reports. 30.0% 207
I don’t. Once they’re done, they’re gone. 13.8% 95
Other (please specify) 13.6% 94
I keep a journal with my design process, challenges I had during the construction, when I started and completed the quilt, who I gave it to, their response, and photos of the quilt. 8.7% 60
I journal on the label, including a story about the quilt, the recipient, or my design inspiration. 3.2% 22
answered question 690 690
skipped question 2 2

PM/GC Quilts Skill Builder Series: Part 2B – Fabric

Welcome to the second half of our Skill Builder posts on Fabric Selection. This post will focus more on how to choose fabrics for a project. Jeanne at Grey Cat Quilts and I have split up some of the topics so be sure to check out her post as well.

One of the biggest challenges I hear from quilters, online and in person, is that they are not sure how to put fabrics together. What if they don’t go together? What if the quilt looks bad? Instead of taking a chance, many decide it’s safer to choose just three or four fabrics from the same line. They go together, right? And that’s what you want, right? Well, not necessarily.

Quilt fabric choices fall into a couple of different categories. I think of them as planned (limited fabrics from a single line or carefully selected), planned scrappy (large selection of fabrics in a limited color palette, not necessarily from the same fabric line) and scrappy (anything goes, the more the better).  My quilts generally fall into the planned scrappy group, although I’ve made all three. They all have their advantages. A planned quilt is more formal. This quilt, based on the pattern Mosaic Magic from the December 2006 issue of McCall’s Quilting, uses only eight different fabrics.

Meandering Paths

The next is a planned scrappy quilt, and has over 30 different fabrics. Because they are in a very restricted color palette, it still has a planned look, hence “planned scrappy.” The greatest advantage to this sort of quilt is that you don’t have to worry about having enough of a particular piece of fabric – you can just grab a different fabric in about the same color and keep piecing. This kind of quilt is great for the fabric stasher, as you can just shop from what you already have. I am most attracted to this sort of quilt because I think it has a liveliness that a more strictly planned quilt often doesn’t.

Barn Raising Stars

Finally, here are some string blocks from my UFO pile:

String blocks 2

There are hundreds of different fabrics in the blocks, and if I ever put the thing together it will be chaotic and fun. The advantage to scrappy quilts is their freedom. Forget color theory, just grab a bag of scraps and start sewing. It’s a great way to clean out your scrap bin.

You see a lot of scrappy string quilts, but any design can be scrappy. The only thing you need to think about is value placement. The design will be visible as long as the relative lightness and darkness of the fabrics is evident – but more on that later.

Color Inspiration

Here’s a phrase that some quilters find intimidating: “Color Theory.” Color Theory starts with the color wheel and introduces some guidelines about how colors relate to one another on the color wheel. Jeanne is explaining color theory in detail, so I’m not going to comment too much on that, but here are several free online color tools that can help you make use of color theory.

Color Scheme Designer – Drag the dot around the color wheel to your first hue (color, like blue, green, red, etc.). Click on the Adjust Scheme tab beneath the color wheel. Drag the dots on the two grids to adjust saturation/brightness (imagine adding black or gray to the main color, resulting in a dusty, grayish blue vs. a royal blue, for example) and contrast (widen or narrow the range of colors in the palette it provides). Above the color wheel you can choose different combinations of colors (monochromatic, analogous, complimentary, etc.) and it will display the results for you. In other words, you might start with blue, change the saturation/brightness so it is a little grayed, then choose Analogic and it will display six blues, six purples and six greens. This is a very easy to use Color Theory tool.

Color Wizard – Like the Color Scheme Designer, Color Wizard illustrates the different ways of combining colors. However, finding the right starting point is more challenging unless you have a RGB or hex code for your color. You can drag the red, green and blue sliders and then click on the color chips below to refine your selection.

If Color Theory doesn’t interest you, why not take let the professionals do the work for you? Fabric designers know their stuff, and if a print fabric really speaks to you, use it to pull other fabrics. Jeanne will go into greater detail on this one, too.

Other professional designers can help you, too. Home decorating magazines are a great resource. Pay attention to the details. This link takes you to a photo of a room at the Better Homes & Gardens website. It is decorated in shades of blue and white, but notice the touch of orange with the pillow. That orange wasn’t an accident – the designer made a conscious decision to include that color. Here’s another room, again in blues and whites, but this time with a green table. Notice the framed photo above the table – the mat leans a tiny bit toward blue, while the table is a lime green. Look at the stripes in the bedspreads – see the olive? How about the aqua stripes on the pillows? The colors don’t match, but they go together nicely. There’s one more color I want you to notice in the photo – see it? Yep, the oranges aren’t there because the set designer was hungry. That little bit of zing adds to the photo – and your quilt.

Don’t forget to look at advertisements. Old or new, as long as they have color, they have something to offer. Here’s an old Hiram Walker cordial ad with a beautiful collection of orangey pinks, aqua blues and sea greens, and a new ad for Savannah College of Art and Design in a modern palette of mustardy yellow, soft blue, taupe and vibrant orange (hmm… I’m finding a lot of examples in the same colors). The subject of the ad isn’t important, just look at the colors they’re using.

Even your cereal box can provide color inspiration. Look at this page for Kellogg’s Fiber Plus products. Chocolate brown, creamy yellow, and soft aqua, or peachy rose, or gold – any of these would make a beautiful quilt color scheme.

Photo sharing websites are a great place to look for color inspirations, but not in other quilts – look at the photos, especially photos taken by professional or semi-professional photographers. Check out this gorgeous photo, taken a few miles from where I live. I used that photo as an inspiration for my Crossed Kayaks mini quilt.

Mini Kayaks

See the barn red, the soft greens of the frosty grass, the yellow green in the tree, the peachy sky?

I’m most familiar with the photo sharing site called Flickr, but I know there are many others. You do not have to have a Flickr account to look at other people’s photos. In Flickr, photographers can add their photos to groups. When you find a professional looking photo, scroll down and look at the right side of the screen. It says “This photo also appears in…” and is followed by a list of groups that the photograph added the photo to.

That’s a good way to find a group that will have a lot of professional quality photos. You can search for groups that feature specific subjects, even search for individual photos that include tags or descriptions with a particular word. Here’s a quick exercise:

Go to the Flickr page.
In the search bar, type “nature” and click Search.
Scroll down – it shows that there are over 12 million photos with the word “nature.” That’s a lot of inspiration. (You can click on a photo to see it larger.)

If you have a Flickr account, you can use the Color Palette Generator tool by Big Huge Labs. (You can use it without a Flickr account, but only on your own photos.) You will need to link to your Flickr account, and then you can choose photos from your photostream or from your favorites. It will create a palette of fifteen colors from the photo. You do not get to choose the colors and if the photo is mostly one color (blue sky, for example) the generated palette can have an overwhelming amount of that color.

My favorite color palette generating tool is Toucan, from Aviary. You can use photos from Flickr, Tumblr, Picasa, Facebook, any URL or by uploading your own photos. With Toucan you choose a photo, then use the eyedropper tool to select colors. You are in control of the colors, not the software. I talked about Toucan in greater detail, including how to use it, on a previous post.

The earlier post also talked about design seeds, a blog that posts several color palettes every day that are inspired by photos. In addition to this blog, there are several color palette sites that allow people to share their color combos. Check out Color Schemer Gallery and Kuler to start.

Fabric Selection

Okay, now that you’ve gone blind from reading all of that text about color choices, let’s get to the fun part. FABRIC!

Some people like to start with fabric and then choose a design, some start with the design and then choose fabric. I’m a design first kind of person, although occasionally I’ll see a fabric that makes we want to find a project for it. As you’ve seen, I love my EQ7. I like to draw the quilt in EQ7 first, then start playing with virtual colors and fabrics. I described the process a bit in my Double Wedding Ring decision post. That’s just the first step, though. Once I decide on the colors, I still have to choose the actual fabric. This is an illustration of the Double Wedding Ring colorway I chose:

Dusk Double Wedding Ring

By the way, this is called an Analogous color palette, which means the colors are next to one another on the color wheel. The blues, greens and soft purples are set off by the darker purples of the rings, and the pinkish purples at the intersection of the rings.

These are the fabrics I chose:

I have a range of purples, blues and green in mostly light to medium values. The rings will be constructed of a variety of purples, although I threw a blue in there just for the heck of it. As I said before, I like a lot of different fabrics in my quilts.

Here’s the more important photo, however:

The back row shows the light fabrics that I chose for the quilt. The front row is a the fabrics I pulled but decided NOT to include. From left to right, here’s why I eliminated the fabrics:
1. Aqua with dark dot – Too bright. The fabrics I chose are softer, slightly grayed.
2. Small blue floral print – I didn’t like the quality of the fabric.
3. Medium scale light blue floral – WAY too bright and clear.
4. Light aqua circles and dots – The color is right for this, but the pattern was too distinct. I wanted the fabrics to blend together, like watercolor.
5. Aqua tone on tone with small stars – I could have used this in the quilt, but I had a lot of aquas and green already and I wanted to stay more in the blue range.
6. Darker gray/blue – This also probably could have gone in, although again the print is a little too distinctive.
7. Aqua floral tone on tone – Again, this would have worked, but I already had similar fabrics.
8. Light olive acorn print – Too brown.
9. Aqua with white flowers – Print is too distinctive.
10. Small scale blue print – Quality of the fabric wasn’t as good.
11. Greenish check – The check was too distinctive.
12. Periwinkle blue paisley – Well, that one just JUMPS out of the photo, and it would have jumped out of the quilt, too. That wasn’t the feel I wanted in this quilt.
13. Pale blue polka dot – Too light with the white polka dots.
14. Green on cream floral – Too mottled looking, not blendy enough.

As for the fabrics I did choose, you can see that colors range from a soft lilac to gray blue, to blue, to aqua and finally to green. I chose a narrower variety of values ranging from medium light to medium dark. I didn’t want a lot of light fabrics in this quilt, although there are one or two that will give me some movement. I’m relying a lot on the darker purple rings to provide the value change.

The DWR quilt is based on a very soft, blended palette. If you look at the Coin Toss quilt (which has turned into a cat hammock on my quilting frame), you can see a lot of the same colors, but with an added oomphf (that’s a technical term, by the way) of bright blue and yellow green.

Coin Toss

Because I wanted some distinction between the fabrics, you can see several fabrics that have noticeable prints.

By the length of this post so far, you’d think that color was the only important consideration when choosing fabric. If you’ll think back to the last Skill Builder Post, however, you’ll remember that value, print and scale are also important.


A quilt without value changes, regardless of the colors, will look a little flat. Remember these two illustrations?

The quilt on the right has more movement with the addition of the yellow fabric not because it’s brighter, but because it’s lighter.

Value is the single most important part of a scrappy quilt – perhaps the single most important part of ANY quilt. Not only does value change create movement in the quilt, you can create all sorts of designs just by watching your value placement. The color of the fabric literally does not matter. Check out this link for photos of quilts that use value to create pattern. If you’re familiar with the traditional log cabin block, you know that it often is made with two sides dark, two sides light. Rotating the blocks gives you literally hundreds of different setting options. My Neapolitan quilt is a variation of a log cabin:

Neapolitan quilt crop

Here are some EQ illustrations of a couple of different settings. They use the same blocks, but by rotating them different patterns emerge because of the placement of the values.

Neapolitan variation 2 Neapolitan Variation 1

Any block that is divided diagonally into light and dark halves can take advantage of these setting options. The red, white and black quilt, above, could become hundreds of different quilts using exactly the same blocks. It’s all about value placement.

Adam Star Adam Diamonds Reversed

Adam Arrows Adam Shadows

Adam Diagonals Adam Diamonds

Adam X

Print and Scale

Most of the illustrations above dealt with fabrics that appear to be essentially a single color (tone on tone, or read as solids). When you use a multi-color print, however, you need to be aware of your companion fabrics. Look at the background of the print fabric – will it blend with the fabrics next to it, making the lines of the quilt design blurry?

Maybe that’s the look you’re going for – remember, this isn’t a right or wrong situation. The point is learning how different fabrics will work together, and deciding whether they will create the look you want to achieve. When it comes to putting fabrics together in your quilt, work with what YOU like. I can give you a thousand different ways to choose fabrics and colors, but the bottom line is that it must speak to YOU.

White, grey and black companion fabrics are very popular right now, but don’t be afraid to try something a little different. Think about how the solid fabric interacts with the colors in the prints. Here it is in navy and red.

See how the red almost blends with the red zigzag lines? Also, the right seems to advance, making the pinwheels red and the “background” the two prints. Even though the navy isn’t present in either of the prints, it provides a solid contrast. Also, it recedes, so the navy is the background and the prints form the pinwheels. That’s important to remember, actually – warm colors tend to advance and cool colors tend to recede. So if you want something in the background, don’t make it a bright orange!

Let’s try some pink options. The first is a pink that is very close to the pink in the prints. The second is much darker, and the third is much lighter.

Again, see how the intensity of the pink changes the way you perceive the pinwheels? The very light pink recedes so the prints form the pinwheels. The dark pink comes forward, and the pink pinwheels are more noticeable than the prints. The medium pink blends more – the pink is about the same shade and depth of tone as the colors in the prints.

You’ll notice I paired these prints with a solid fabric. You can put them with another print that looks solid and get a similar effect. If you’re really bold, you can pair prints with prints. You will not see the pattern of the quilt design when you do this, though, unless the values are extremely different.

Okay, I’m running out of steam here! The four posts between Jeanne and I have covered a lot of info about fabric selection, but is there anything specific we didn’t address that you’d like answered?